Belgium Travel Guide – Europe

Belgium, Brussels, Grand Place, Europe

Brussels’ Grand Place floral carpet. Photo by Wouter Hagens. Belgium, Europe

Holidays in Belgium

This little corker of a European kingdom has a lot more to offer the tourist other than Napoleon’s Waterloo, notorious Eurocrats fattening up in Brussels and addictive chocolates.
Grand architecture is stunning and well-preserved, whether it’s baroque temples to power or modest Flemish canal-side housing.
The countryside, crisscrossed with canals, is flat in the north and attractively hilly in the south, while the Belgian people are friendly to visitors, if not to each other – there is intense rivalry between the northern Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons in the south.
Belgian fine art is first class and wide ranging, as is their muscular beer and their cuisine – a tasty French/German fusion than turns fit men into Walloon balloons overnight.
And then there are the killer beers, such as Mort Subite (Sudden Death) and Delirium Tremens. . .
Belgium is efficient, safe and easy to get around, sights are packed in tight, and when you’re done there Amsterdam, Luxembourg and Paris are just down the road.

Downsides

– Belgium has an unfair reputation for being dull, though activities are limited by the country’s size.
– A small number of great attractions = large numbers of tourists in a small space.
– It’s not cheap.

Belgium Weather

Best season: May-September. Belgium doesn’t experience extremes of heat or cold, though the weather is notoriously erratic and frequently grey and wet.
Worst: November-March. Short daylight hours, cold and grey, but Christmas markets in December are light and lively.

Length of stay

Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: Brussels for a wild weekend.
Recommended: 9 days to get a good look at this tiny country.

Main attractions

An attractive, diverse, interesting city with plenty of action.
The Flemish Art Cities. All in flat Flanders, within one hour north by train from Brussels.

***Antwerp

Antwerp, Steen Castle, Belgium, Europe

13thC Steen Castle (Het Steen) in Antwerp. Photo by Tania Dey.

Unjustly neglected by tourists, Antwerp is a lively, pretty old port with a long history, efficient trams, a good choice of new museums and an amazingly diverse collection of architectural styles from medieval to art nouveau. It’s also home to a young, dynamic, good value Europe fashion scene and masses of pubs, clubs and cutting-edge social hangouts.

*** Brugge (Bruges)

Bruges houses in the Potterierei district, Belgium

Bruges houses in the Potterierei district. Photo by Marc Ryckaert.

This stunning, medieval city, latticed with canals and loaded with 13th century buildings and great art collections is a must-see, in spite of the inevitable tourist hordes that will share the streets with you.

***Ghent

Another underrated medieval city full of canals, superb buildings and wildly lively student activities. 12th century Gravensteen castle is a major attraction, as is an incredible oil painting in St Baaf cathedral, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Van Eyck.

**The Ardennes

Ardennes Forest village, Belgium, Europe

The Ardennes Forest. Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont.

The hilliest area of Belgium, a tranquil southerly place of rivers, forests, valleys and rustic towns, in the south of the country.
Attractive, lively Namur town is the entry point for most tourists. Some travel over the ‘border’ into charmingly tiny Luxembourg from the Ardennes.

*Ostend

A major sea route to Belgium from England’s Dover, but also offers OK beaches, watersports and a few fine old buildings.

Intercity Transport:
Train and bus services are efficient and good value. Main cities from Brussels by train: Antwerp 40 mins; Bruges 1 hour; Ghent 40 mins; Namur 50 mins; Ostend 1. 20 mins; Luxembourg City 2. 5 hours.

Lion Mound at the heart of the site of the Battle of Waterloo in the Braine l

Lion Mound at the heart of the site of the Battle of Waterloo in the Braine l’Alleud region of Belgium. The field now grows beets. Photo by Myrabella.

Activities

Hiking

Many well-marked, attractive trails cross the flat north or hilly south and east parts of Belgium and hikes range from half a day to a week.
Brussels has its own great hiking and biking spot, the Forest de Soignes.

Canoeing

Lots of pretty canals and rivers, especially in the Ardennes. The River Lesse is popular.

Biking

This is an excellent place for bikes, with short distances over mostly flat land in Flanders or more picturesque paths in the hilly Ardennes, via dedicated bike paths.
Major roads can be hairy though car drivers tend to have a good attitude to bikers.
Bikes can be carried on trains or rented at many stations. More information on the SNCB website.

Dinant on the Meuse River, Belgium

Dinant on the Meuse River. Photo by Marc Ryckaert.

Feb/March, the Carnival of Binche. An ancient and famously kaleidoscopic event with costumes and masks. Binche is 54 kms (34 miles) from Brussels.
May 5, Holy Blood Procession, Bruges. A spectacular religious festival since 1303, the Holy Blood relic is paraded around town by hundreds of citizens dressed in fine medieval outfits.
May 22, the Battle of Lumecon & The Procession of the Golden Chariot, Mons. A George and the Dragon battle and religious procession in this pretty city.
May-November, Festival of Flanders. Superb classical music in magnificent locations, such as cathedrals, all over Flanders.
Last Thurs of June, the Ommegang Pageant, Brussels. A wildly colourful ‘folkloric’ procession and games since 1549.
July 21, National Day and start of Brussels Fair (1 month).
Autumn, International Antiques Fair, Bruges. Fine antiques in fine settings.
Dec 6-Jan 2, European Christmas Market, Brussels, Bruges and more. Icy, festive fun, all lit up.

For some precise dates, more suggestions and information see European Festivals or Arts Festivals

Basics

Visas:
EU citizens are free to cross borders willy-nilly, while nationals of USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan do not need a visa for up to 3 months.

Electricity:
Electric sockets are 220v and take 2 round pin plugs.

Safety:
Belgium is very safe and locals unlikely to dip their hands in your pockets, but transient new Europeans are not so restrained, so take the usual moderate precautions.

Language:
Flemish, French and German are the country’s official languages, but most Belgians speak fair English due to the need for a lingua franca and the high numbers of expats in Brussels.
South Belgium is the least English-speaking, so brush up on your French if that’s a target.

Accommodation:
Hotels tend to be expensive and booked up, so reserve your room well ahead, particularly during busy times.

Local Transport:
Brussels and Antwerp have metros. Taxis are expensive.
Much of the country is flat so bicycles are popular and can be rented from many rail stations.
Canal boat hire is an unusual option.

Bruges canal, Belgium, Europe

Belgium’s top tourist town, Bruges, with typical canal and Bell Tower. Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist.

Food

World-class food and drink are no trouble to find in Belgium, and world-class prices too, though cafés serve excellent food and are much cheaper than restaurants. The style is part French, part German and part homegrown and both meat and seafood dishes are popular.
Belgians claim to have invented frites/chips/fries and the national dish is moules-frites, mussels and chips, though waffles are a contender for the title.
Service charges are included so tipping is unnecessary but a little extra for special treatment is not unusual.